New York’s High Line is a visionary piece of urban planning that transformed a length of disused railway track into a leafy urban park. Sadly, though, eager developers seem keen to ape the project rather than learn from it. The lesson is that transforming an existing but underutilised space into a public one is a good thing. A point sadly missed in many schemes that imitate the urban greenery model by pledging vast sums to create spaces that won’t benefit “Joe Public” at all.
One such project is London’s mooted Garden Bridge. Set to stretch from Temple Underground station to the South Bank, the £175m (€240m) project will open in 2018. Picture a 366-metre slither of verdant parkland, supported by two tree-like copper-nickel cones swirling skyward from the muddy Thames. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick (of Routemaster bus and Olympic torch-design fame) the structure isn’t bad looking at all. As well as offering a pleasant river-crossing romp and sprucing up the view, the parkland will host some 270 trees. So far, so good.
The trouble starts when you consider the limitations that look set to compromise the structure’s purpose. Firstly it will spend much of its time failing to live up to its billing as a bridge at all and be closed between midnight and 06.00. Secondly there are currently no provisions to allow cyclists to cross. We’re also told that it will shut sporadically for private events. A clever money-spinner perhaps but an irksome prospect for residents and commuters.
With an annual maintenance cost of £3.5m (€4.1m) including hefty donations from the taxpayer courtesy of backing from chancellor George Osborne and London's mayor Boris Johnson, the bridge is in danger of becoming an expensive private folly.
A local campaign mounted on behalf of residents by Waterloo Community Development Group has suggested that the cost of the Garden Bridge could fund 30 new parks that would create 30 times the amount of green space. And herein lies a compelling argument.
The success of the High Line in New York shows that city planners can create public space using existing resources that, in turn, benefits the community it serves. The Garden Bridge, however, looks increasingly like a city-centre statement piece built for the few rather than the many. There’s time to change perceptions – build bridges, if you will – and loosen up these arbitrary restrictions before 2018. Cyclists, commuters and sightseers should have equal access to the taxpayer-funded construction. But I guess we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.
Josh Fehnert is Monocle’s Edits section editor.